The History of Volunteering in the UK

Volunteering has a rich and traceable history in the UK, from the first medieval volunteer hospitals to “professional” volunteer organisations and support that are now operating at national and international levels.

Acts of volunteering in the UK can be traced back to medieval times when churches were responsible for helping the sick and poor. Indeed, it is estimated that at least 500 voluntary hospitals were established in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Acts of volunteering then continued throughout the centuries but examples of organised volunteering only began to appear during the 19th century with the emergence of various charity organisations helping those in need, such as the YMCA (1844), The Salvation Army (1865) and the British Red Cross (1870), that were recruiting volunteers in order to fulfil their mission. 

Volunteering “Boom” in the 1960s

During the First World War, around two millions of people helped wartime charities and as a consequence, thousands of volunteering organisations were founded after the war. Social and economic changes after 1945 led to a volunteering “boom” in the 1960s when the number of volunteers and organisations significantly increased. Therefore, volunteering became more formalised. Local volunteer bureaux were established along with organisations such as the national Volunteer Centre (1973) to support voluntary service. At the time, volunteering was also seen as a way to positively engage young people with society and counter protesting youth subcultures movements (Mods and Rockers riots in 1964).

Volunteering today

Volunteering is strongly established in Britain as the country continues to have one of the highest rates in the world and remains a key element to promote social participation and active citizenship, especially among young people. A recent survey shows that in 2018/19, nearly 19 million people (36%) volunteered with a group, club or organisation at least once in the year and over 11.9 million (22%) volunteered regularly (at least once a month). 52% people also took part in informal volunteering (unpaid help to someone who is not a relative) activities at least once in the year and 26% volunteered regularly.